Anne Brontë’s ‘Agnes Grey’: A Melancholy Story with a Happy Ending

Agnes Grey page

I first read Anne Brontë’s ‘Agnes Grey’ a long time ago – in my early twenties – about the time that I first read ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’.

I believe a fair number of people consider it her masterpiece in its brevity and tight plotting. I can see it has those features, but I can’t agree that it is the better story . I infinitely prefer the excitement and Gothic drama of ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ – but then, as a writer of Gothic myself, ‘I would say that, wouldn’t I?’

There are arguably faults in the structure of ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’;  I don’t know if the ‘story within a story structure’ used in it – also famously used by Emily Brontė in ‘Wuthering Heights’ – is the best method of revealing Helen Huntingdon’s former history.  I personally think a series of shorter flashbacks might be more engrossing – but there are valid objections to two parralel stories as more confusing. It is a problem I know from my own experience when writing ‘Ravensdale’.  There are also notorious faults in character portrayal in ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ and other weaknesses.

Overall, thoughy,  I found ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ to be a gripping story in the way that the quiet tale of the dismal existence of the unfortunate early Victorian governess is not. Probably, then, it is a matter of taste.

After all, defenders of the story would say that the quiet tone is the point. The story was written to highlight the miserable position of the governess in the UK of the mid nienteenth century, and could not by its very nature be exciting. Agnes Grey’s lonely existence as a governess contains precious little excitement, pleasure or even peace.

In her position as a social inferior to the family, while also not part of the domestic staff,  she has nobody on her side, and no-one to talk to. She has no social life, and anyway, her wretched salary – £25 a year – is too low for her to be able to socialise, even if she could find a respectable escort to chaperone her.  The families for whom she works don’t even assume that as a young girl she might actually want a little fun. In fact, her feelings are not considered at all.

She has a foreshadowing of this when she arrives at her first post after a long, cold journey: ‘The cold wind had swelled and reddened my hands, entangled and uncurled my hair, and dyed my face a of a pale purple. ..(Mrs Bloomfield) led me into the dining-room where the family luncheon  had been laid out. Some beefsteaks and half cold potatoes were set before me, and while I dined upon these, she sat opposite, watching me (as I thought) and endeavouring to sustain something like a conversation. ..In fact, my attention was almost wholly absorbed I my dinner; not from ravenous appetite, but from distress at the toughness of the beefsteaks, and the numbness of  my hands, almost palsied by their five hours exposure to the bitter windWith a feeble attempt at a laugh, I said, ‘My hands are so benumbed with the cold that I an scarcely handle my knife and fork.’ ‘I dare say you would find it cold,’ replied she with a cool, immutable gravity that did not serve to re-assure me.’

Unfortunately for Agnes, the husband is even less approachable and often downright rude, while the children are  not only completely undisciplined and unmanageable, but impossible to teach. The parents will not back up any of Agnes’ attempts to get them to learn their lessons. Meanwhile they constantly complain of their offsprings’ apparently learning nothing.

Not only that, but some of the family members encourage the obnoxious ‘Master Tom’ in his cruelty to animals, culminating in the notorious scene where Agnes immediately kills a brood of nestlings rather than leave them to his torments.

Agnes Grey image

Her next post is not quite as exhausting. Her charges are older, while the two unruly boys are sent off to boarding school after some months. Still, the vain Rosalie and the hoydenish Matilda Murray make life anything but easy for Agnes, and the constant snubs that were a governess’ daily lot are a source of great unhappiness to the sensitive Agnes:

‘…(As) none of the afore-mentioned gentlemen and ladies ever noticed me, it was disagreeable to walk beside them, as if listening to what they said, or wishing to be thought one of them, while they talked over me or across, and if their eyes, in speaking, chanced to fall on me, it seemed as if they looked on vacancy – as if they either did not see me, or were very desirous to make it appear so.

If the Bloomfields – who are portrayed as nouveau riche – are ill mannered in their treatment of a dependant, it seems extraordinary that more established families would not have been taught more gracious manners.

Finally, Agnes does find love and happiness. This is after a sub-plot involving the heartless predatory flirtatiousness of Rosalie, who having humiliated the arrogant Rector, moves on to other potential victims.

On the characters in the novel, some of these are excellently done, though it is a shame that so few of them are more likable. In fact, Agnes comments on this dearth of congenial minds about her.  No doub it is based on the author’s own experience in the posts she occupied as governess,  as critics have often noted how both of Agnes’ employer’s families are based on the two for which she worked as govenress.

My own impression is that while the ending is a happy  one, it is so muted in tone that the pervasive melancholy of the novel is what struck me in this reading as much as last time. There is too little happiness in it, coming in at the very end.  Unlike Victorian readers, I find ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ far less distressing. The humour there is more robust, and so is the temperament of the heroine.

Many other governesses in fiction have a less dismal time of it.  Charlotte Brontë’s Jayne Eyre, is plunged into Gothic adventures despite her lowly position as governess, but this is solely dependent on the whims of her master Mr Rochester, who is obliging enough to fall in love with her. I have to admit that I enjoyed that Gothic story, too, far more than the low key and realistic ‘Agnes Grey’.

A story that I didn’t enjoy – though full of wild and improbable adventure involving a governess – is the 1895 one by Charles Garvice that I have reviewed elsewhere on this blog, ‘The Marquis’.

This novel, which ranks as literature rather lower than that of the Brontė  sisters, revolves around the said Marquis falling in love with his governess. He has been decidedly wicked, but he repents very soon after meeting the noble Constance , governess to his annoying   Little Lord Fauntleroy-esque annoying nephew. She has been forced to earn her living as a governess after her father becomes insane after discovering a formula which rivals that of the Alchemists.

Though the Marquis eyes have to flash and Constance has to turn from red to white (but never blue) innumberable times during the improbable happenings that follow, the happy ending is naturally a foregone conclusion. Written as appalingly as only Charles Garvice can, this heroine of this piece of nonsense is so unsympathetic that for my own part, I felt far more anxiety about the fate of Matilda Murray’s  terrier, sold to the cruel local rat catcher, but finally rescued by the hero.

‘A Court of Thorns and Roses’ by Sarah J Maas: Certainly a Page Turner

A_Court_of_Thorns_and_Roses_series

I read ‘Court of Thorns and Roses’ by Sarah J Maas because I was intrigued by the praise given to it in the excellent book of writing advice ‘How to Write a Page Turner’ by Jordan Rosenfeld. The author was evidently drawn in by the series of which this is the first, and a great admirer of Maas’ writing in general.

I wasn’t actually sure if this was aimed at a Young Adults or adults. The level of erotica is slightly higher than might be expected in a typical YA, but mild for an adult novel.

I was pleasantly surprised – even staggered – by the strength of the writing. I thought the plot well thought out but as wildly improbable as fairy stories normally are, yet that powerful writing did indeed make it exactly the page turner Jordan Rosenfeld found it for me.

It is a version of The Beauty and the Beast theme. Rather disappointingly, this beast isn’t really ugly at all, being forced to wear a mask instead. To me that slightly undermines the moral of the fairy tale. However, he does turn into a beast, a giant wolf, when he wants to travel outside the realm of the Spring Court where he rules. It is in this form that Feyre first comes to know him.

Feyre comes from a family of déclassé gentry reduced to living among the villagers in what seems to be a form of mediaeval Great Britain. This realm has been invaded and taken over by magical beings known as the Fae , and after a bitter war the humans have been driven back to an area that on the map in the beginning of the book is an equivalent to the south east and south west of England and some of the lower home counties.

Feyre’s family don’t seem to be any good at growing food, and there is besides no mention of the common land and grazing rights available to peasants under feudalism, so they accordingly largely rely on her to support them through honing her hunting skills.

One day she fights and kills a great wolf, skins him, and sells his pelt in the market. Unfortunately, this is actually a High Fae in disguise.

In due course, his great friend Tamsin, High Lord of the Spring Court, comes to claim Feyre whom he will keep in bondage in exchange for the murder.

Fortunately, this bondage does not include sexual abuse, as it might in some dismal Fantasy Come Bodice Ripper.

In fact, once at the court, Feyre is left more or less to her own devices, and only gradually develops any sort of a relationship with Tamsin and Lucien. At first, she is enthralled to have the materials and the time to indulge in her passion for painting. Tamsin shows himself generous in obtaining materials for her, and his interest in her work is what first brings them together.

Then, gradually, Feyre begins to learn the history of Tamsin, his relative Lucien, the masked servants, and the threat that surrounds them from the dread place under the mountain.

Normally, a writer can get away with a good deal of improbability by employing humour and introducing a spoof element into the work, or to provide an element of ironical detachment. This is not a technique that Sarah J. Maas uses. In fact, it is a comment on how impressive the writing generally is she tells this fantastic tale largely without any recourse to irony and yet still draws the reader in to the wildly improbabable events.

On so many occasions, I asked myself, ‘Why am I  so eager to read more of this?’ and yet, I always did go back to it. In other words, Jordan Rosenfeld was quite right to use it as an example of a book where you have to keep reading. This book draws the reader in and keeps her/him reading whether or not s/he wishes it, and surely that is exactly what all writers want.

No doubt the tension that Jordan Rosenfeld emphasizes as the key component to writing gripping fiction is a part of it. In fact, Maas uses all the tricks that Rosenfeld recommends in her writing advice –- which is no doubt one of the reasons why Rosenfeld admires her writing. Overall, then, it is worth reading ‘A Court of Thorns and Roses’ (and no doubt Maas’ other books) quite apart from any entertainment value, as examples of how a writer can use various techniques to arouse reader interest and sympathy, and keep her or him turning those pages.

Above all, the writing is exceptionally vivid. For instance:
‘But it was not my own doom that I contemplated into dread and rage and despair. As we rode on – the only sound snow crunching beneath paws and hooves – I alternated between a wretched smugness at the thought of my family starving and thus realising how important I was, and a blinding agony at the thought of my father begging in the streets, his ruined leg giving out on him as he stumbled from person to person…’

The developing love between Tamsin and Feyre is particularly well done. I feared some distasteful Stockholm Syndrome theme of a Captive Falling for Her Hateful Abuser, but thankfully, the story keeps well away from that. There is no question of the sexual relationship between Tamsin and Feyre being anything but consensual on her part.
Whether SM Captor Captive overtones are avoided as successfully in the next in the series, where I gather that the wickedly purring Rhysand claims Feyre was his for a certain number of months of the year, remains to be seen; still, after this first read, I am optimistic.

Generally, then, this was an impressive read. If it is YA, then it is enjoyable for adults as well. It is often exciting and the scenes are vividly portrayed. The characters are skillfully drawn, and the connection between between the female and male lead is very well done.

Feyre is a sympathetic herione. She is her own person, and honourable. Though outstandingly good looking, she is no Mary Sue, the sort who is admired by everyone she meets, even in rags. She gives little thought to glamour.

When we first meet her, she is in her role as hunter, tracking in the icy winter forest. She is loyal to her family (though resentful of having to fight to support them) and as good as her word to her mother to look after them. Raised to be a ‘young lady’ she is used to dismal poverty.

This is her reaction when she sees the ornate furniture of the Spring Court: ‘I didn’t need to know the worth of everything in this room to understand that the emerald curtains alone – silk, with gold velvet – would have fed us for a lifetime. A chill scuttled down my spine. It had been days since I’d left. The venison would be running low already.’

Tamsin, at first a remote and cold figure, oddly devoid of any social graces for the ruler of a once populous court, becomes increasingly symapthetic as Feyre and the reader come to know more of him and the demons he fights.

I have got three complaints; one is about the incongruous use of modern US speech by these characters who seemingly inhabit a version of the UK of the Middle Ages(and I don’t mean Shakespearian expressions like ‘trash’ and ‘right now’), but by using constructions such as,  ‘Stay the hell out of the cave.’

Another is the use of such sentences without pronouns or verbs, ie, ‘A growl.’ These are presumably done for effect, as I am sure so acomplished an author knows herself  that they are ungrammatical. Perhaps the editor put them in, believing that they make the text more readable for young adults.

I was also disappointed at the anachronisms. I know this is set in a fantasy version of Mediaeval Britain and not the real one – well, obviously, since as far as I know, we were never invaded by fairies, though we were by Romans, Saxons, Vikings, Norman French and many others – but there are great problems about the way that this mediaeval economy is depicted.

For instance, luxury items like chocolate (which of course, contains sugar) and tea, necessarily imported from abroad, are freely available to the general population in what seems to be a feudal economy with a small surplus and primitive transport. In the real Mediaeval UK, tea wasn’t affordable for most people until well into the eighteenth century, and then only as a treat, and honey was largely used as a sweetener instead of the luxury item ‘sweet salt’.

Then, there are incongruous features such as ‘the London Season’ being mentioned in passing. The London Season was a much later development, based about the timing of the sitting of the Houses of Parliament, and so odd in this presumably feudal setting.

Again, this seems to be a version of mediaeval Great Britain where birth control other than coitus interruptus has been discovered.  Feyre mentions using it, apropos her enjoying a fairly casual sexual relationship with the village youth Isaac. I suppose that would have been arguably possible in an era of a primitive understanding of science;certainly, it is true that various ‘primitive’ cultures have had a good understanding of women’s fertility and have used herbal means to control it. I assume that the difference regarding the influence of the Church from the Great Britian of the real mediaeval age is one reason why Feyre’s having a lover outside marriage is not seen as wholly outrageous. She is also allowed to dress in trousers without comment, which of course,  would have been wholly beyond the pale in the non fantasy UK of that era.

Overall, though, despite these minor drawbacks, ‘A Court of Thorns and Roses’ is a fantasy story that draws you in before you know it and one which I recommend. I will probably go on to read the others in the series.

Purple Prose and a Rapist ‘Hero’: The Original Bodice Ripper: Review of ‘The Flame and the Flower’ by Kathleen E. Woodiwiss

Mummy Porn cover

Marty-Stu rapes Mary-Sue and then they find a love so true…
I am so glad that I have finished this (by the way, I read it for research: honestly!). I detested reading it; and it was epic length. The only reason I am not giving it one star is because an online friend of mine said that it had helped her in dealing with memories of sexual abuse.
It has been argued that the whole ‘rape to love’ theme so beloved of the Bodice Rippers of the 1970’s developed from the fact that the US was many decades behind the UK and parts of Europe in accepting a woman’s right to sexual pleasure; this being so, readers of this age group were attracted by the comforting fantasy of a man who is at first a sexual aggressor coming to love and treat the object of his lust with tenderness and respect.
This being so, I will give it two stars. This is the most acid review that I have written about any book. As I have often said, I don’t like giving low star, savage reviews and only award them for novels which romanticise rapist so-called heroes or the brutalisation of women.
Even so,being a softy, I doubt I would have been able to bring myself to write it, had the author still been alive.
This story seems to be a verison of Georgette Heyer’s ‘Devil’s Cub’ meets Margaret Mitchell’s ‘Gone with the Wind’.
From ‘Devil’s Cub’ there is the abduction on a ship by a seemingly wicked man who misunderstands the female lead’s purpose and mistakes her for ‘a light woman’, the male lead making a rape attempt (in this case, after earlier successful ones) with the words: ‘Be damned, I’ll take you’ , the male lead’s murderously violent temper, his showing unexpected kindness to the female lead when she is seasick, etc.
Birmingham is also as a sea captain from Charleston, like Rhett Butler from ‘Gone With the Wind’, though Rhett Butler has the ability to laugh at himself that this ‘hero’ does not, and is far likable and intelligent generally. Birmingham’s late mother and the female lead are obviously based upon Scarlett O’Hara’s mother Ellen; the countless other similarities include a version of the sharp-tongued Grandma Fontaine, who in this case becomes one of a chorus devoted to singing the female lead’s praises and running down other women.
I have to find some positive things to say about this. I suppose the writing can be described as vivid; in some passages, it is even striking if overburdened with adjectives and adverbs. For instance, this description of a storm: –
‘Horse and rider entered a forest gone wild. Once lazy branches lashed and stung and whipped and clawed. The trees bent and swayed in what seemed a frenzied determination to snatch her from the horse and failing, moaned their frustration to the wind.’
In its day, it was a phenomenal success.
Views about rapist ‘heroes’ have changed, and I am frankly disturbed that it still receives glowing reviews.
On the writing style, unfortunately, this is far more typical:–
‘To her he appeared as some splendid, godlike being. Murmuring her love to him, she slid her arms about his neck, pressing her soft breasts into the mat of hair that covered his chest …’
For someone who is supposed to be devout, the female lead doesn’t seem very troubled by the First Commandment. Elizabeth Gaskell would have pointed the moral to that.
Purpose prose abounds. Such tautologies as ‘He laughed at her with mirth, throwing his splendid head up high’ are typical. I felt that if I read once more about her, ‘looking up at him timidly’ or the muscle in his jaw ‘twitching spasmodically in his anger’, or ‘the elderly ******* grinning from ear to ear’ I would turn into a dung beetle. Sometimes, the ‘hero’s’ eyes are like ‘flames of fire’ or ‘burning with passion’s fire’. At other times, he ‘chuckles softly’. He is very fond of doing that.
I lost count of the number of times the allure of these ‘soft breasts’ is mentioned, or of descriptions of Heather’s ‘ flowing dark tresses’, or her other charms. Possibly more often than we hear about his ‘dark, handsome face’.
There is no man who meets Heather who doesn’t fall for her, and all the women long for Brandon Birmingham, which surely qualifies the pair as fully paid up, card-holding members of the Mary-Sue and Marty-Stu club .
All men are seized by violent desire the minute they set eyes on Heather. Fat, repulsive ones are stimulated to unusual athleticism in trying to rape her, and as a result are thrown out of windows or knocked flying into bushes by the male lead.
Interestingly, fat people in this are invariably evil, with the exception of Hatti , rightly described in a Goodreads review as a ‘Cringeworthy Mammy stereotype.’

Here
And after all, she is merely, ‘ample’. She is the black domestic tyrant slave wholly devoted to the interests of her white owners. A typical speech from her is: – ‘Oh Lordy, Master Bran, we done thought something bad had happened to you.’
Interestingly, by contrast, none of the black men in this are given any personality or indeed, any sort of distinguishing personal characteristics at all.
At least, the racism of Margaret Mitchell in ‘Gone With The Wind’ had the excuse that was published in 1936, and begun ten years earlier. This novel was published in 1972, long after the Civil Rights movement. Yes, of course there was slavery in the US of 1799; but should it have been portrayed wholly uncritically?
Everyone regards the ‘hero’ with admiration, even those who suspect the rape, though a couple express misgivings over it . All the single local women swoon over this fellow. In fact, his jilted former fiancée continues to pursue him shamelessly. Just why everyone admires him, when he is depicted as being as callow and insensitive as a boy of fourteen at the age of thirty-five or six, isn’t explained, except by his being handsome and rich and something of a bully. Neither does he have the excuse of having lost his mother early; she died when he was twenty-five.

KEW
*Warning: spoilers follow*
This fiancée is understandably humiliated when the ‘hero’ turns up with a bride at the port where she comes to greet him back to the US. Here, one wonders at his total lack of social graces. Even given that overseas post would be disrupted by the French Revolutionary Wars, he might have had the sense to send one of his men with a note ahead of him before coming ashore, asking his brother to get his former fiancée out of the way. No, such delicacy is beyond him, and all of a piece with his performance as a rapist.
This rejected fiancée makes a point of aiming cruel barbs at the poor, helpless Heather (her late nineteenth century name being one anachronism among many concerning the late eighteenth century UK).
This woman, Louisa, is referred to as a ‘blonde bitch’ (off topic: as one born with light coloured hair, I find the way two terms are commonly casually linked in light novels to be wholly unfair).Strangely enough, the ludicrously named ‘Brandon Birmingham’ -it may be that the author had never taken note of what an unromantic city the Birmingham in England is- though he is portrayed as a macho man, shows a feminine streak of spite in his replies to these taunts.
For instance, this exchange, when the ‘hero’ is seen by his ex- fiancée carrying the now heavily pregnant Heather upstairs, is typical:
‘”Do you do this every night, Brandon?” she enquired jeeringly, with a raised eyebrow. “It surely must put a strain upon your back, darling…’
‘His face was expressionless as he made his reply, “I’ve lifted heavier women in my life, including you…’
Louisa keeps walking into these put-downs as if she can’t see them coming, though she is supposed to be so socially confident. In fact, she is, like most of the characters, wholly unbelievable.
Credible characters can make a wholly incredible plot seem believable, but these are as unreal as the events in the story. These characters are caricatures.
Though the story begins in England, the author shows a remarkably blasé attitude towards the need for any familiarity with the topography, language or customs of the UK of the late eighteenth century.
In fact, the action begins in ‘the English countryside’, with no county specified. The description is apparantly much admired, and is certainly striking, but it is set in a geographically impossible location of moorland which is nevertheless within a day’s journey of London on the appalling roads of 1799. Also, here, there is apparently a climate so dry that on a hot summer’s day dust hangs continually in the air. Even when roads were only partly paved, there could be no place in England, even in a prolonged drought, dry and hot enough to create that effect.
These anachronisms are so numerous that it is not worth listing more than a couple.
Heather presumably has lived through the terrible winter of 1794-5, when birds fell dead out of the trees, and in fact, even the mildest winter in the UK is decidedly cold and damp. Despite this, she does not think to order any flannel petticoats or warm underwear to take with her on a winter’s voyage across the Atlantic. This gives the male lead an opportunity to show he cares by having fashioned for her some quilted underwear.
Then, why does Brandon Birmingham (whose father was apparently ‘an English aristocrat’ who during the American War of Independence renounced his citizenship and therefore, any title he had, though we are never told exactly what his was) think that he would be entitled to ‘the axe’ for rape and abduction? It would have been a short drop hanging for him along with the hoi polloi.
There are myriad misunderstandings following on not, it seems, from Birmingham’s raping Heather three times on board the ship, or for his Dominic Alistair impersonation in the inn. No, none of that matters; what does come between them is that Birmingham has told Heather that as he suspects she was in the plot along with her aunt and the others to force him to marry her. Accordingly, he vows to punish her by treating her as an upper servant, allowing her no money, and refusing to consummate the marriage.
For months, he is tormented by desire for her soft breasts and firm youthful body, and finally he resolves on another rape as a way of solving their problems. This, however, proves unnecessary. Heather is already waiting for him in a provocative nightdress of the sort they definitely did not wear in the late eighteenth century.
This, apparently, is very romantic and exciting.
I think what outraged me most is that the rapes that take place when first they meet are recalled by both as finally a good thing, a fit subject for joking, and even a topic for sentimental recollection (by the by, Heather has no ambiguous feelings, no distaste, about having a pregnancy as the result of the rape).
For instance, Heather reflects at once point that she ought to be grateful to him for ravishing her, as her life was so hard before with her abusive (and naturally, obese) aunt. At another time she says, ‘I was nothing before he met me.’
He is sentimentally attached to the dress that she was wearing when he first raped her – regarding it as ‘Their Dress’. He sternly admonishes her for bartering it for some cloth which she uses to make him a Christmas present. She sheds tears and apologises.
At the end, before a wholly improbable piece of love making – though the ‘hero’ is pale from blood loss from a shooting, he can always rise to the occasion – he and Heather have this exchange. He says of one of the many would-be rapists in her life: –
‘”He got what he deserved for trying to rape you.”
She looked at him slyly. “You were the one who raped me. What were your just deserts?”
He grinned leisurly. “I got my just deserts when I had to marry a cocky wench like you.”’
He then threatens to spank her. The timid Heather shows some apprehension. Then he reassures her smugly, ‘”Madam, you amaze me. Never once have I laid a hand to you and yet you still act as if you expect me to.”’
As a critic said of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela: ‘It is sentimental and obscene. The obscenity lies in the sentimentality.’

US English and its Continued Use of Forms from Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century UK English

Pamela-1742.png
Mr.  B snooping and being a hypocrite as usual and Pamela being modest. Does he need reading glasses? He seems to suffer from ‘short arm syndrome’. 

It is an interesting fact that US English retains some of the words and expressions of seventeenth and eighteenth century English, which are wrongly thought of as ‘American English’.

For instance, there is use of the word that is commonly now spelt as ‘aint’, but can be found as ‘in’t’ and ‘an’t’.  That was once as common as the modern ‘isn’t’ and only later stigmatized as non-standard English in the UK. You will find it in plays of the Restoration era such as William Congreve’s play ‘Love for Love’ (1696) and in writings by Joanathon Swift.

You will find ‘an’t’  as a matter of interest, in Samuel Richardson’s ‘Pamela’  (1740) and as ‘in’t’ in Fanny Burney’s ‘Evelina’ (1775).

‘Ain’t’ in fact, persisted up to the early nineteenth century, and was used in Pierce Egan’s ‘Life in London’ (1823).

Then, in reading one William Shakespeare, I have come across various expressions seen as quintessentially American, and meaning more or less the same thing as they do today. For instance, ‘trash’ in Julius Caesar, and ‘right now’ in Henry VI Part II.

There is also the use of such expressions as the US ‘Out the’ rather than the UK ‘Out of the’form.

This can be confusing to those not particularly well versed in the development of English, and various readers have taken me  to task for using ‘ US English’ in my novels set in the UK of the eighteenth century.

This Amazon review by an Australian reader of my spoof highwayman romance ‘Ravensdale’ takes this view to extremes, insisting that in the English speaking countries outside the US, the expressions ‘hey’ and ‘for sure’ have never been used:

when Americans write English period novels: or, why you should use a better editor

In fact, ‘hey’ is a very old English exclamation (though not, so far as I know, used as a greeting as in the US), and you need look no further than a nursery rhyme to find it: ie,in the sixteenth century nursery rhyme:  ‘Hey Diddle Diddle, the Cat and the Fiddle’  .  Again, it features in Shakespeare’s song, ‘Hey Nonny Nonny’ from ‘Much Ado About Nothing’  (1598/1599).

As for ‘for sure’ , it is constantly used by Mrs Honour in Henry Fielding’s ‘Tom Jones’  (1749) and also features in Richardson’s ‘Pamela’.

tomjones

And talking about ‘Ravensdale’, for those interested,  it is at the moment free on Amazon.com Here

and Amazon.co.uk  Here  

…And I would like to add that whilst I may sometimes be confused by the content of reviews of my novels, I always appreciate them, good or bad.

Review of Jordan Rosenfeld’s ‘How to Write a Page Turner’

225px-Blackcat-Lilith
I have just finished reading Jordan Rosenfeld’s ‘How to Write a Page Turner’. I thought the advice in it was invaluable.

Not only that, but it is detailed; too many ‘how to’ books for writers are not sufficiently specific. You might be told to ‘infuse the pages with tension’ and to ‘keep raising the conflict’ besides, ‘creating memorable characters’ , but the writers might just as well say ‘be talented’ ‘write with flair’ or some such thing.

This advice is also concise. There is no waffling and rambling. You are told exactly what to do and how to do it.

The author’s main argument is this: what is needed to create a page turner is tension, tension all the time. We are often told that tension and conflict are what drive a plot forward, but in fact, conflict is arguably another aspect of tension.

The author breaks down the specific forms of tension into four elements, danger, conflict, uncertainty and withholding. She describes how these can be utilised, and in further chapters goes on to discuss in detail tension with characters, plot tension, and tension in exposition.

In the part on plotting, there is an especially helpful bit on a plotting device that may well prove priceless for people like me, who generally start out without any but the vaguest plot in mind.

Ms Rosenfeld divides the sections of a book into various ‘Energetic Markers.
Firstly, there is the Set Up: that is, your character’s ordinary world. This is closely followed – usually, within approximately 30 pages –by the Inciting Incident, namely, some sort of threat to the order of that character’s ordinary world. About a quarter of the way through comes the Point of No Return, that is, when your character becomes inextricably caught up in a course of action or events from which there is no returning to the old status quo. In due course, the Dark Night and the Triumph follow.

The latter is when your protagonist takes on the antagonist, be that antagonist an arch evil dictator or a series of impersonal conventions. This does not necessarily lead to a happy ending, but should be some sort of moral triumph.

(This interests me, as Nineteen Eighty Four, in the final confrontation between O’Brien and Winston Smith, far from there being any sort of moral triumph for the forces of good, they are in the person of Smith completely destroyed; he not only betrays Julia, but he comes to love Big Brother. The reader is left with a sense of complete despair).

There is detailed advice about how to maintain that tension at each of these points. Obviously, however, with regard to keeping up a reader’s interest, the most important part is the beginning. If people are going to stop reading, it is usually in the first quarter of the book (here, I think I can claim a record; at least two people stopped reading halfway through That Scoundrel Émile Dubois when I thought that I had really ramped the excitement up, with vampirism and time warps raining down.)

Ms Rosenfeld provides some important hints about retaining reader interest early in the novel. She points out that here, to keep your readers’ attention, you must have as much excitement as you can. You must make the character sympathetic, not by giving a lot of detail about past trauma, etc – but by putting him or her in a situation where there is tension from the start, due to unhappiness, some sort of imminent threat, external or internal, and perhaps due to some unspecified past event that has brought about this state of unease or threat.

She describes how large chunks of back story, an excess of exposition, or an unexplained or not sufficiently relevant inciting incident can lose readers’ attention in those first, crucial pages up to the ‘call to change’ in the inciting incident.
There are also some excellent hints about style and the use of imagery to create gripping word pictures.

Another interesting aspect of Rosenfeld’s approach is her recommendation that rather than thinking in terms of plot development – apart from through those ‘Energetic Markers’ that is – the writer should think in terms of individual scenes, each of which must have its own goal and arc of tension, the combination of which create the plot structure.

My main criticism of this book is that I didn’t understand why the author made reference to, but chose to use almost nothing in the way of example from classic, brilliant writers ike Mary Shelley, Margaret Atwood and Stephen King.

Instead, she quoted extensively from a range of less distinguished authors. Some were excellent, but unfortunately, some, far from making me want to turn the page, made me want to stop reading on the spot.

It may have been that I was in a particularly cranky mindset when I read this. Still, in the extracts I came across sentences without subjects or verbs. As Ms. Rosenfeld shows from her advice that she has an expert knowledge of grammatical rules, I think there must be a general understanding that in YA fantasy these can be abandoned for effect.

There were also fantasy worlds apparently based vaguely on European feudalism that even from the extracts sounded economically impossible with such a small economic surplus (unless they maintained their oversized courts largely through magic). There was an astonishing historical anachronism in a serious historical novel that made me snort into my tea.

Many of the characters seemed to be flaccidly self-indulgent and self pitying (I hope these were the tension creating flaws that they needed to overcome). Finally, a large number of the names were (seemingly unintentionally) ludicrous.

As these are best selling books, my objections are obviously a minority viewpoint. A couple of the books sounded so interesting that I may well get round to reading them myself.

Overall, then, I would recommend reading this book for the excellent advice about tension, and only skimming through the extracts.

Shelf Life: The Book of Better Endings by Rob Gregson: An Original and Very Funny Fantasy Novel


One of the favourite pieces of advice to writers about creating tension is : – ‘Torment your protagonist’. And, of course, the said writers often don’t stop there. Sometimes, they kill them off. This is to say nothing of the minor characters. How many of those get bumped off in the average writer’s career?

Rob Gregson’s ‘Shelf Life’ is a highly original and gripping piece of black comedy about the world of narratives, and of what happens to prematurely killed and murdered characters of all sorts, from protagonists down to those with the most insignificant roles.
Cathy Finn leads an uneventful life running a bookshop. She is the less exciting and ornamental of a pair of sisters, and fully satisfied with that.

Unfortunately, one day, she is an unwilling witness to a crime. A ‘personal injury consultant’ is sent to eliminate her.
Just as he shoots her dead, she is taken to another reality: that is, New Tibet. Here she learns that she was only a minor character in the mystery novel in which her sister was the female lead.

This is because all realities are narratives, and in the mysterious Dome at New Tibet, they all converge. Now Cathy Finn is free to lead any sort of life that takes her fancy.
But the redoubtable Cathy Finn only wants to lead one – her old one. She is determined to escape back to her old reality and reunite with her mother and sister; this despite the fact that everyone assures her that she will never be able to return.

Here, Cathy Finn shows that she is more courageous and resourceful than either she, or anyone else, could ever have suspected…

Through her attempts to get back, she becomes involved with a world hopping , nut chewing slob and petty smuggler known as ‘Hitch the Postman’, who has been made the unlikely candidate to deal with the threat to the integrity of the Dome and the consequent safety of New Tibet.

There follows an hilarious, and strangely believable, race through a series of all sorts of narratives, a chase across worlds with Hitch, the loutish security man Duggan, and the larger than life Professor Locke which makes for delightfully dark comedy.

They race through bad dystopias, tales of zombie apocalypses, mediocre sci-fi’s, fan fiction, hackneyed westerns, re-writes of classical novels, Blyton-esque children’s stories and just about every other sort of tale.

With an hilarious and all-too-believable cast of characters – from the seedy, self serving Hitch to the cold and calculating Max Roberts – this book is a for all those who like me, revel in dark comedy.

Here are some of my favourite quotes: –

‘The watchman snorted. “Yeah. Right. D’you want the truth, Miss Finn? They told him only to work with his closest friends; people he could really trust.” He flashed his charge a disdainful grin. “You don’t have any friends, do you, Hitch? You’ve p*****d on so many people’s chips, you’ve got nobody left.”’

‘ ‘Hitch’s face turned a colour most commonly associated with kitchen appliances.’

‘”We’ve been lured into a work in progress; a tale left deliberately unfinished, designed to swallow us up like an insect in amber.”’

‘“Stay your hands,” said Silas, his voice still strangely amplified. “End this motiveless malignity. You fret and squabble over meagre nothings.”
“Motives and what?” said Jones. “What’s ‘e goin’ on about?”

Two figures now stood in the doorway: one thin and pale, one fat and flushed – both looking as though they’d been selected from opposite ends of some peculiar line-up of the aesthetically-challenged.

You can buy the book on Amazon.co.uk here

and on Amazon.com  here

‘Ferrandino’ the Sequel to Rinaldo Rinaldini – Review.

32_Rinaldo_d

 

It took me ages to find an English translation of the sequel to ‘Rinaldo Rinaldini Captain of Bandetti’ by Christian August Vulpius. In fact, it wasn’t me who finally tracked it down; it was an obliging colleague on Goodreads, who directed me to the site where it can be downloaded google books

The problem with sequels is often that however much readers who love the first in the series may request one, they are not always a good idea. If some of the main conflicts have been resolved, then colflict has to be introduced artificially.

In this,in fact, Rinaldo Rinaldini’s problem in the first two volumes – how to abandon being a robber captain and lead a good life when his past keeps on catching up with him -has not been resolved.

In the original version, he was stabbed to death by his menor, the Old Man of Fronteja.  Vulpius brought him back to life to satisfy public demand, rather like Conan Doyle with Sherlock Holmes.

I read the first two volumes of the novel back in 2013, when I was writing my own robber novel ‘Ravensdale’.

I loved the first book in this series, wholly tacky and gothic as it was in tone. Vulpius strives to reproduce that  blood and thunder effect here, but does not qute come up to it. Grotesque features, such as Rinaldini’s adoring voluntary servant Rosalia’s body being preserved by the Old Man as a skeleton are added, true. Yet, they seem to have been included in the plot in an atempt to capture some of the gothic excitement of the first volume rather than as a necessary part of the story.

maxresdefaultThese skeletal remains of poor Rosalia are in defiance of the rules of time. It is mentioned that the equally devoted Countess, Dianora, has an infant by Rinaldini. From this we may assume that little more than a a couple of years have passed since the events in the last volume, where the unlucky Rosalia died not long before Rinaldini was attacked by the Old Man, to save him from the disgraceof being taken as a robber. Yet we are are asked to believe that her body has decomposed to the extent of being reduced to bones. That is, unless the Old Man has reduced it to this form by some magical process.

There are some more independent women in this novel, besides adoring ones like Dianora. There are a couple of ‘man haters’ who dwell in a castle where Rinaldini stays, and they expose him as the dreaded brigand in a splendidly dramatic ending to one chapter, where he is offered the services of a dancer who has entertained the company:

‘Ferrdanino looked at the girl in silence. She smiled and cast her eyes on the ground. At this moment, the Countess entered the hall, and enquired: “What is the matter here?”
Ferrandino replied ernsetly, “I have engaged this maiden.” The Countess laughed aloud, and said in an undertone, “Whither?”
Ferrnadino without confusion, and very dryly, replied; “To my companions and fellow travellers.”
“Indeed! My cousin must know that.”
The cousin came, and the Countess told her laughing, of Ferrandino’s intention- the cousin turned to the dancer, and said, “You will go with this man?”
“Why not?” replied the other, with great naivite.
“You do not know who he is.”
“Do you then know?” asked Ferrandino, quickly.
“O yes!” replied the cousin, in the same tone.
Ferrandino looked round him in astonishment- the women laughed aloud. The musicians and the dancer left the hall. The cousin took the dancer by the hand, led her to Ferrandino, and said, “There is the bride – Take her to your den.”
Ferrandino stared at her, and would have asked her meaning, when she held a minature before his eyes.He cast a look at it, and trembling violently, started a few steps back.
“Have you,” said the cousin, “read the writing beneath this portrait? – It is the likeness of RINALDO RINALDINI THE ROBBER CHIEF!”

Then, another woman, Serena,who met Rinaldini and fell for him in the earlier novel, jeers at his faithlessness, which was depicted without comment in the first volume:
‘I cannot desire that you should love me better than you have loved the dearest of your mistresses, Aurelia, Rosalia, Olympia, Dianora, Ersilie, and who knows how many more, as you would and will love, even Serafina. You love very inconstantly. Like as the moon loves the earth, sometimes not at all, generally half, and only on a few days with full adhesion.’

41ZYpCCMnoL._AA160_To be fair to Rinaldini, though he has some sort of compulsion to be promiscuous, he does seem to genuinely fall in love with all of these women in turn, and often at the same time.

Oddly enough, we are informed that he at one point writes to Aurelia, whom he never did manage to win after his abduction attempt failed. She unaccountably turned up to be present at the dramatic stabbing in the last volume. We are never told what her connection was with the Old Man. I may have missed something here. I am far from sure that there wasn’t a connection between her uncle and guardian and the Old Man.

Rinaldo looking poshAnyway, Rinaldini somehow has her address.

Sadly, Rinaldini’s devoted henchman Ludovico, one of my favourtie characters, is killed off in this volume, fighting to liberate some oppressed people, a cause which Rinaldini undertakes and at which he is defeated.

My own edition of the first volumes has Rinaldini die at the age of sixty, fighting in the American War of Independence: this is, of course, and amended ending from the original. Oddly enough, an expert on Vulpius writing on  JSTOR mentions that Rinaldini is killed fighting in the battle to liberate the Haiduks along with his henchaman, and I am confused about this.  Whether in fact, this is Rinaldini’s end in the original novel is a possible explanation.  The one available on Goodle Book is obviously a later edition, and perhaps Vulpius once again gave his hero a exculpatory ending which he later reversed.

The story ends inconclusively regarding Rinaldini’s love life – we don’t know if he went back to the devoted Dianora, though we do know that the Old Man , who turns out to be a Prince, reveals that he is Rinaldini’s father. He arranges things so that Rinaldini can drop his old identity as a wanted man.  As he is now the son of a prince rather than a low born robber chief, we may assume he can wed whom he wishes.

I found that a shame. I preferred him as a goat herd made bad….

The song from ‘The Blackwood Crusade’ by Jo Danilo

51cODtPtwTL

This morning I woke up from a dream I could not remember, save that part of it was the haunting poem from Jo Danilo’s ‘The Blackwood Crusade’.

It is a very touching poem.  Here is is in full.

‘Tis just the beginning of you and me

As we wander by the stream.

You on one side, I on the other,

Just water in between.

I’ll sing to you as time goes by,

As winter melts to spring.

As flowers bloom, and die again,

So to life we’ll cling.

I’ll sing to you as the river floods,

And we’re poured into the sea.

And then I’ll hold you in my arms

Together, finally.’

This is the song that the joint hero, Silas, sings to his baby sister, a strangely precocious and magical infant who seems to come, like the rest of Silas’ family, to a tragic end in the river.

Thinking of it, reminded me what a great book this is.  It is a fairy story for all ages, by turns funny, sad and adventurous.

Here is the page on Goodreads

 

 

 

Page Turners for the Run Up to Christmas: Review of ‘Dark Moon Fell’ by Mari Biella

41563041

 

I finished this on Halloween – highly appropriately, as I don’t think it will be writing a spoiler to say that this is a real ghost story – and there is more than one ghost.
But, as ever, Mari Biella’s style is subtle. No crowd of phantoms jumping out of cupboards here – and as ever, the psychological and the psychic are expertly blended.
She has also done a fine job in creating a sympathetic heroine out of Angela Martin – a has been pop star of less than outstanding talent, who becoming a drunk and squandering the money and fame that has so easily come to her, is caught by alcoholic poisioning.
But, at least – unlike ‘reality celebrities’ – she has some talent; and she also has a redeeming sense of irony. This is what she thinks as she fades out of consciousness in her bathroom:
‘ The papers are going to go wild over this, the voice in my head continued, in its arch, you-silly-thing way. Another faded has-been going out with a whimper, drowning in booze. Never mind alcohol poisoning, you ought to die of sheer bloody embarrassment.’
She also speaks of the delusions of fame:
‘You suddenly find that you have no shortage of friends, all of whom appear to offer you unconditional loyalty and affection. They laugh at your feeble jokes and applaud even your smallest achievements. They put up with you when you behave like a jerk, which you frequently do, because nobody dares to challenge you. What you don’t realize is that, through it all, those same friends are quietly keeping score. And when the money and fame dry up, which they invariably do, so too does their devotion.’
I took to Angela after that.
During her period of unconsciousness, she is haunted by an odd dream which she remembers, of a substantial Victorian house, of being hunted, of being chased by an evil pursuer across a moor.
It might not seem surprising that Angela would have a nightmare about pursuit, as she has been stalked for some time by an obsessive fan, who at first inclined to worship her, is now disgusted with her. His letters have become abusive.
Angela is short of money, and options. Again showing her ability to view herself with detachment, she says to her former manager of her group:
‘All I know about is singing reasonably well, dancing a bit and having my photograph taken.’
He feels to some extent responsible for her emotional collapse, having plunged her thoughtlessly into the cut throat pop world as a young girl. Now he offers to help her get a job as a caretaker in one of the houses owned by the owner of her old recording company. Angie is eager to get away from London – especially the stalker.
After a cursory interview, Angie gets the job at Fell House in Northumberland, situated by a sinister moor, which is rumoured to be cursed.
But what worries Angela more is that this is literally the house of her dreams. This is the place she visited when in a coma.
From the start, she knows that someone else is in the house. The question is, is this person living or dead?
Yet, she feels that she cannot give up this opportunity. Besides, it is a lovely old house set in wonderful countryside,and she relishes this new existence.
…There is also another attraction. Ethan Haar, the architect who is designing some work on the house in line with the rules pertaining to a listed building. Angela is attracted to him at once. In fact, with him, she forgets to feel jaded.
As she begins to learn about the tragic history of Fell House, and to uncover the secret of Ethan Haar’s past, Angela finds herself increasingly drawn to solve its mystery, and to help him lay his own ghosts besides.
But there is more danger lurking about the house for Angela than a possible haunting…
Written with the smooth flow, striking word pictures and introducing the vivid characters we have come to expect from Mari Biella, this is an absorbing, sometimes spine chilling, read.
It also includes the extra pleasure of a tender love story.
As ever, I am hard put to it to narrow down my choice of quotes, but here are two:
‘I thought of the years in which we must both have lived in London, he and I, walking the same streets, falling asleep beneath the same grimy sky. We might have passed each other on a crowded pavement, or ridden in the same taxi, or gone to the same shops and bars, but we’d never met. Now we’d been brought together in this obscure little place, two travellers looking for a better tomorrow.’
‘I had the sudden sense that Fell House existed in its own time zone, quite separate from that of the rest of the world. It was a zone, perhaps, where past, present and future lost their meaning. Maybe that was why I’d dreamed of the place before I’d ever set eyes on it.’
‘Stray sheep, startled by my approach, darted away from the path. Pausing to tie my shoelace, I realized that I could hear nothing apart from their occasional, plaintive bleating, and birdsong, and the low whine of the breeze. A few clouds sailed across the sky, throwing fleeting shadows over the rough grass and bracken.’
You can here buy Dark Moon Fell at amazon.co.uk
and at amazon.com

Germinal: Émile Zola’s Masterpiece

germinal-zola-810x600

Germinal is Émile Zola’s masterpiece, and I am fairly typical in thinking (and I have only read it in translation) that it contains his most brilliant writing, with exceptionally evocative passages of lyrical strength, and brilliant word pictures. It depicts a miner’s strike – with unsparing realism and remarkable sympathy.

When  my daughter asked me to recommend some of the most strongly written books that I had read, this was one.

I wrote in my last post that Zola had a fear of the untrammelled power of the working people. In this novel, however, his sympathies are entirely with them.  With unsparing honesty, he depicts the starvation, despair, and resulting violence that follows from the miners’ attempts to gain a living wage.

Zola was always meticulous in carrying out research. For this novel he went to northern France in 1884, where he witnessed a miners’ strike in Anzin, while at Denain he went underground to view working conditions. He always defended his depiction as realistic, aganinst the attacks by indignant critics, who accused him of exaggerating the horrors of the pit workers’ conditions for dramatic effect.

Incredibly, the novel was written in only eight months. The title, incidentally, is taken from the eighth month of the revolutionary calendar, and is meant to evoke an image of germination, of budding new growth, and of hope for the future. This is, in fact, the note on which the book ends. For all the distressing scenes that are depicted, the story ends in the spring, on a note of regeneration.

Over to Wickipedia for an excellent concise summary of the plot: –

The novel’s central character is Étienne Lantier, previously seen in L’Assommoir (1877), and originally to have been the central character in Zola’s “murder on the trains” thriller La Bête humaine (1890) before the overwhelmingly positive reaction to Germinal persuaded him otherwise. The young migrant worker arrives at the forbidding coal mining town of Montsou in the bleak area of the far north of France to earn a living as a miner. Sacked from his previous job on the railways for assaulting a superior, Étienne befriends the veteran miner Maheu, who finds him somewhere to stay and gets him a job pushing the carts down the pit.

Étienne is portrayed as a hard-working idealist but also a naïve youth; Zola’s genetic theories come into play as Étienne is presumed to have inherited his Macquart ancestors’ traits of hotheaded impulsiveness and an addictive personality capable of exploding into rage under the influence of drink or strong passions. Zola keeps his theorizing in the background and Étienne’s motivations are much more natural as a result. He embraces socialist principles, reading large amounts of working class movement literature and fraternizing with Souvarine, a Russian anarchist and political émigré who has also come to Montsou to seek a living in the pits. Étienne’s simplistic understanding of socialist politics and their rousing effect on him are very reminiscent of the rebel Silvère in the first novel in the cycle, La Fortune des Rougon (1871).

While this is going on, Étienne also falls for Maheu’s daughter Catherine, also employed pushing carts in the mines, and he is drawn into the relationship between her and her brutish lover Chaval, a prototype for the character of Buteau in Zola’s later novel La Terre (1887). The complex tangle of the miners’ lives is played out against a backdrop of severe poverty and oppression, as their working and living conditions continue to worsen throughout the novel; eventually, pushed to breaking point, the miners decide to strike and Étienne, now a respected member of the community and recognized as a political idealist, becomes the leader of the movement. While the anarchist Souvarine preaches violent action, the miners and their families hold back, their poverty becoming ever more disastrous, until they are sparked into a ferocious riot, the violence of which is described in explicit terms by Zola, as well as providing some of the novelist’s best and most evocative crowd scenes. The rioters are eventually confronted by police and the army that repress the revolt in a violent and unforgettable episode. Disillusioned, the miners go back to work, blaming Étienne for the failure of the strike; then, Souvarine sabotages the entrance shaft of one of the Montsou pits, trapping Étienne, Catherine and Chaval at the bottom. The ensuing drama and the long wait for rescue are among some of Zola’s best scenes, and the novel draws to a dramatic close. Étienne is eventually rescued and fired but he goes on to live in Paris with Pluchart.

MV5BNzdiYjhjOGMtNjQ1Zi00NGViLThlN2UtOTllYjk3NDY2MTAzXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMzk4OTI2MjM@._V1_There are many vivid characters in this novel, and perhaps the one who overshadows them all is inanimate: Le Voreux, the dread consumer of huaman flesh, the pit  in which the local miners and cart pushers labour for their lives.

Perhaps the most  horrific scene – and one of the most grotesque in all of Zola’s novels, which include a great deal in the way of horror and of the grotesque – is depicted in the scene where the rioting and starving locals attack the local grocer’s shop. The grocer falls to his death trying to escape via the roof, and the women, whom he has sexually abused in exchange for credit, enact a terrible revenge on his corpse: –

‘And then, with her old, withered hands, La Brúlé parted his naked thighs and seized hold of his now defunct manhood. She grabbed the whole thing in one hand and pulled, her bony spine tense with the effort, her long arms cracking. When the flabby skin refused to give, she had to pull even harder, but finally it came away, a lump of bleeding, hairy flesh, which she proceeded to brandish in triumph…’

By contrast, one of the most moving – indeed, near transcedent – moments in the novel is  when the cynical engineer Paul Négrel, the nephew of the owner of the mine, who is quite happy to deceive his uncle by carrying on an affair with his aunt by marriage,  who has been the bitter enemy of the militant Étienne, comes together with him in huamnity. After the collapse of the pit, he labours tirelessly and devotedly, night and day to ensure that Étienne, Chaval and Catherine are rescued from their underground prison.

When at last he is rewarded by finding them: –

‘These two men who despised each other, the rebellious worker and the sceptical boss, threw their arms around each other and sobbed their hearts out, both of them shaken to the very core of their humanity. ..’

As I said in my last post, while readers generally may not be attracted to reading the twenty novels in the series of Les Rougon-Macquart  , to neglect reading Germinal is to miss out on a true work of genius.

I have to say that I found Étienne’s love interest Catherine, insipid. While it might be argued that this was after all typical of a Victorian novel, and that her background is such that it is impossible for her to have developed much independence of thought or as an older daughter who had both to work in the pit and to labour in the house, had the leisure even to have much individuality, she still comes across as dull compared to Zola’s other female characters from humble and hard working bacgrounds, ie, the heroine of La Terre.  

This does seem to me a weakness in the structure of the novel. I certainly take the point that Cahterine is intended to be a victim, seduced by Chaval before her delayed puberty has come about. But Étienne’s  fascination with her is unconvincing, and so the desperate hatred between himself and Chaval is too.

Compared to all the admirable features in this book, though, this, and a certain tendency at times, ever present in Zola, to overdramaticise, are hardly very important. Catherine, with her passive surrender to abuse from a man she does not really love in Chaval, is not a female lead that a modern female reader can find appealling., however truly pathetic she might find her.  But in such characters as Catherine’s own mother and  the independent minded Mochette,  there is a good deal of feminine indpendence depicted throughout the story.

Zola was rightly proud of  his achievement.  It caused a senasation on its appearance and remains widely read to this day, having inspired several films, and being regarded as one of the most signicicant of all French novels.